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Shades Of Ritchie

December 8, 2020

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Tomorrow will mark the 59th anniversary of the death of Ritchie Valens.

Most of us “non-millennials” have heard of Ritchie Valens. He was the one who brought us Donna and La Bamba before dying tragically in an airplane crash in 1959. I remember vividly singing along to both of these songs when I was a teenager a few years later. The line, “I had a girl, Donna was her name….” still echoes in my musical consciousness. For me the memories of Ritchie Valens are stronger than most. Here’s why:

Rtichie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13, 1941 in Pacoima, California. Pacoima is just a stone’s throw from the town of San Fernando, where I grew up. I knew the turf well when I was a kid. It was a tough landscape that was unyielding and hostile to anyone who didn’t have the sand to survive. Ritchie and I both survived the San Fernando experience. That’s the first thing we have in common. Although we never met, living in San Fernando taught us both those keen survival instincts.

Ritchie went to San Fernando High School after graduating Pacoima Junior High School but never finished. He left high school in the autumn of 1958 to pursue his music career full-time. By then he was already a star. I, on the other hand, attended neighboring Sylmar High School and graduated in 1966. In 1970, I began teaching at San Fernando High School where Ritchie Valens had already been a legend for 12 years. To this day, this high school is known as the home of Ritchie Valens. My time at San Fernando High School as a teacher is something I will always treasure. The school had that old-time spirit that is simply lacking in most schools today. My classes were composed mainly of Black and Mexican students, many of whom I am still in touch with through internet sites such as

Donna was a real person, not just a name in a song. Her real name was Donna Ludwig. She was a typical teenage girl of the late 1950’s but her independent streak gave her the gumption to date Valens against the vehement opposition of her father. Her father managed a Packard automobile dealership in Beverly Hills. She never forgave her father for his “bigoted” rejection of Valens or for the recording deal he pressured her into after the singer’s death. Her father wasn’t fond of Ritchie even after he immortalized his daughter in his chart busting song of 1958. She left home at 18 and later married three times and was known by the name of Donna Fox-Coots. She rarely gave interviews throughout the years but did contribute to the 1987 movie La Bamba. In an odd coincidence, I delivered papers as a kid to the Ludwig family. They always treated me well but then I was just a lowly paperboy who came to the door once a month to collect for the San Fernando Sun newspaper.

Valens had a fear of flying due to a freak accident at his junior high school when on January 31, 1957 two airplanes collided over the playground, killing or injuring several of his friends. I remember this incident very well. It was a terrible tragedy that made me always look up when I was on the playground as a kid. Ritchie overcame his fear of flying because of the demand for touring across the United States. I overcame my fears, not for touring success, but for the necessity of work commitments. That’s another thing we have in common.

Irony surrounds his death. Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959 along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. He was only 17 years old. Valens was only on the plane because he won a coin toss with Holly’s backup guitarist Tommy Allsup for the last seat on the plane. Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, voluntarily gave up his seat on the plane to J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), who was ill with the flu. It is often stated that this was the only coin toss that Valens ever won. The tragedy inspired singer Don McLean to write his 1971 hit “American Pie”, immortalizing February 3 as “The Day the Music Died”.

Ritchie Valens is buried at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in San Fernando, California. This is also the resting place of my grandmother, Anna Maria Flor Rizzi who died just a few months before Valens. I have been to this cemetery many times over the decades to share my thoughts with both. It is this cemetery that also brings Ritchie Valens’ memory into my life so often.

Valens will always be remembered by the public as a pioneer of Chicano and Latin Rock. He influenced many in the music world, including Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Carlos Santana, as he had become nationally successful at a time when very few Latinos were in American rock and pop music. To me, he’ll be remembered more personally as the pride of my hometown and an inspiration in my own musical evolution. There will always be shades of Ritchie in my life.

Here’s the original recording of Donna:

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From → America, Music

  1. He is remember in Clear Lake, and a local journalist and author, Larry Lehman, wrote “The Day The Music Died: The Last Tour Of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, And Richie Valens.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Never heard the story about Waylon Jennings. Jeez, even more music might have died.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting article, although very sad!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cathy Kochanski permalink

    Allen Rizzi,
    I’m friends and childhood babysitter with/for Gilbert (Gil) Rocha who was in the group The Silhouettes with Ritchie. Gil can give you so much info on Ritchie. Gil is upset about the movie La Bamba. He said they made it too Hollywood. You’ll see Gils name in the credits.
    He would enjoy sharing with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please put me in touch. I never met Ritchie but I taught at San Fernando High (English). I also thought La Bamba was a bit too much Hollywood. I did like the way they showed how many “takes” were required back then. (I was a producer and songwriter in the 1970s.) Have a happy and safe 4th of July.


      • Cathy Kochanski permalink

        Happy 4th Allen.
        I’ll tag you on one of his Ritchie posts. My favorite story was when Ritchie showed up for the 1st time. I’ll try to find it for you on Gils page.
        Cathy Sylmar class ’72

        Liked by 1 person

      • HAppy 4th to you as well.


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